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Magnus LINDBERG (b. 1958)
Aura - In memoriam Witold Lutosławski (1993-94) [38:33]
Related Rocks for Two Pianos, Two Percussionists and Electronics (1997) [16:15]
Marea (1989-90) [11:52]
Emil Holmström, Joonas Ahonen (piano and keyboards); Jani Niinimäki, Jerry Piipponen (percussion)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. live, October 2019 and November 2020, Helsinki Music Centre, Helsinki
ONDINE ODE1384-2 [66:40]

Magnus Lindberg is among the most widely recognized contemporary Finnish composers and one of the best known in the mainstream repertoire. His orchestral works and concertos have been particularly successful in concert and on recordings. He is a superb orchestrator, putting his musicians through the paces in much of his oeuvre. The pieces on this disc are no exception. Lindberg’s palette is very colourful, but his music is in no way easy listening. His textures tend to be thick and formally the music does not readily lend itself to a clear directionality. Yet there is much that is captivating and worth the effort to get to know it.

The earliest work on the CD is Marea, which is the Italian for “tide.” It is one of a trilogy of independent orchestral pieces that helped to establish the composer’s reputation, the others being Kinetics (1988-89) and Joy (1989-90). Marea, though the shortest of the works on this disc, is placed last. I found it to be the most difficult to appreciate. It is scored for a “sinfonietta-sized” orchestra, according to Kimmo Korhonen’s notes in the CD booklet, but the ensemble sounds much larger to these ears. When Lindberg began composing the piece he did not have sea imagery in mind and it was only later after the work had acquired its final shape that he thought of it as “sea music.” As he was finishing it, he was walking along the sea bed on the English Channel in Normandy and realised that the tide was “an apt metaphor” for the piece. The sea depicted struck me as a very stormy and noisy one. As Korhonen points out, Marea’s structure is based on a chaconne with twelve-tone chords. However, there is nothing obvious about it being a set of variations. I found it all relentless and soon tired of the barrage of loud music, though the orchestra plays it to the hilt.

I found much more to like in Related Rocks, a chamber work placed second on the disc. Although there are only four musicians involved, it also sounds much bigger due to the huge array of percussion employed. The instrumentation immediately brings to mind Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, but any resemblance to that masterpiece comes only near the end of Lindberg’s work. The two pianists perform on normal grand pianos with electronic keyboards placed above the keys and are constantly required to shift back and forth between the keyboards. The percussionists play a variety of mallet instruments, in particular marimba and vibraphone; drums of various kinds; and cymbals and gongs, creating a veritable Balinese gamelan. The texture is not as dense as in the earlier work and the rhythm and forward motion later in the piece provide plenty of interest. From about 11:00 of the work’s 16 minutes, the apparent influence of the Bartók work is felt and the jazzy rhythms add an attractive swing to the piece. The musicians here are obviously into it and the result is a terrific performance. The piano parts are really demanding, but do not seem to faze the pianists in the least. I was familiar with one of the pianists, Joonas Ahonen, from his performances on Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s Schoenberg et al CD I recently reviewed. Nonetheless, to fully appreciate Related Rocks, you should see the video available on YouTube performed by, Solistes de l’Ensemble intercontemporain.

The most extensive work here is Aura, “a masterpiece of symphonic proportions,” as Korhonen notes. Although it is in four movements, played without a break and consists of a complex first movement, slow movement, scherzo, and finale, referring to it as a symphony is misleading. It is more of a concerto for orchestra, employing a huge orchestra, but allowing individual instruments soloistic turns. Lindberg dedicated Aura to the memory of Lutosławski, who had died while Lindberg was composing the piece. Overall, there is not the clarity one finds throughout Lutosławski’s compositions, but there are many places within the texture which are reminiscent of that composer’s writing. It is an absorbing work that takes several auditions to fully appreciate its structure, which can seem at times to wander.

Aura is Lindberg’s biggest orchestral work to date. It begins at the bottom of the orchestra, including contrabassoon and bass clarinet, and builds Bruckner-like from there. This first movement is the longest in the piece and contains enough variety to sustain interest with solo turns by clarinet, bassoon, and cello. The second movement is opaque, though with underlying activity by the strings and long sustained notes in the winds. Korhonen labels it a “frozen chorale,” which is punctuated by heavy percussion. Later in the movement gamelan sonorities with piano and mallet percussion alleviate the density before brass ostinatos and strings in chorale-like lead directly to the third movement. This “scherzo” reminded me of Lutosławski more than anywhere else in the piece. The texture thins out and allows one to appreciate the solo instruments. However, this is no light diversion with loud brass chords and scurrying woodwinds and strings. It suddenly begins to wind down, as if losing steam, before a solo clarinet leads directly into the finale. This last movement then starts quietly with piano, strings, and winds as an energetic continuation of the scherzo. After a massive, pulsating build-up with thundering percussion, the music dies down and continues with a memorable string passage that reminds me of similar passages in Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. Aura concludes quietly with string glissandos and a final sustained chord that just dies away.

Aura has been recorded at least once prior to this issue and was enthusiastically reviewed here by Colin Anderson and Peter Grahame Woolf in a performance by the BBC Symphony under composer and conductor Oliver Knussen (DG) nearly twenty years ago (review). Based on excerpts I listened to, that account has held up very well and has nothing to fear from this newcomer. That being said, all the performances on this Ondine CD are magnificent with state-of-the-art sound to match. Thus, if you are in the market for a fine programme of Magnus Lindberg, do not hesitate to add this to your collection.

Leslie Wright

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